Thursday, June 24, 2010

Park Güell, Barcelona

Barcelona is a fantastic city for many reasons, but its greatest attraction is probably the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Scattered throughout the city, Gaudí’s 19th and early 20th century works blow away the concepts of traditional architecture in favour of wildly imaginative works of art.

Gaudí’s style is most often described as completely original and unique, and he was indeed a pioneer in his period. But at the same time, his ideas didn’t come from a vacuum. His two greatest influences were the architectural trends of his time (mainly gothic and traditional Catalan), and the natural world (which is especially interesting from a gardener’s perspective). Park Güell, covering a hilltop in the city of Barcelona, is a great example of the combination of influences which gave rise to his work.

The park is quite large, and unfortunately somewhat lacking on the living natural side – the planting is boring and not particularly maintained in most parts. However, one can still appreciate the overall layout design, and of course the many compelling architectural elements scattered throughout. All the forms are organic, from the curved paths, benches, walls and fences, to the randomly angled columns supporting arches and canopies meant to evoke the forest.

In many cases, living natural elements are also combined with architectural ones, as in the wall and fountain at the entrace to the garden.

A key influence which I was happy to recognize having just come from Turkey was the tile mosaic. Brought to Spain via the Islamic Moors, mosaic was a great inspiration to Gaudí, who took the traditional decoration and turned it upside down by employing multiple, complex patterns in loose designs and using it to cover unexpected shapes. The many mosaics at Park Güell are works of art, and one the main reasons visitors flock here.

Even today, Gaudí’s works continue to be highly original and inspirational. I always find it interesting to try to understand how new art is created. Often, the elements already exist, as in the case of the Gaudí’s mosaics. But it takes someone with special vision to truly understand these existing elements, and then combine them and shape them into something new and revolutionary.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Turkish gardens

In my last blog on wildflowers in Turkey (before the all important break for the Chelsea Flower Show), I mentioned that the country is not known for its gardens. While this may be true today, it is not to say that there is a lack of gardening tradition. Turkey was the meeting point for the ancient world’s great cultures, and this cross-pollination gave rise to an incredibly rich and diverse cultural landscape. Both the Greeks and Romans from the East, and the Persians from the West, brought with them celebrated gardening traditions. Combined with Turkey’s fantastic climate and inspiring natural landscape, one can easily guess that impressive gardens were built during the great Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, many of them do not survive today, and what has remained is not well preserved or restored.

The majority of traditional Turkish gardens are courtyards. Almost all buildings, from grand mosques and palaces to private homes, feature a courtyard. I’ve always loved courtyards – they create a feeling of peace and protection not found in any other outdoor spaces.

Most courtyards were paved, either in part or fully. I spotted many beautiful paving patterns, including the one below from an historic palace courtyard.

A crucial element of Turkish courtyards is water. Fountains, pools or some source of water is almost always present in a courtyard. In one example in the magnificent Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a small channel system was designed to gently carry water from a central fountain to all corners of the courtyard and finally into the elaborate pattern shown below. The water would then flow into a large, deep pool one level below. A further level down, a boxwood garden was designed to provide a green backdrop to the whole composition. Unfortunately, today the fountain is dry, the pool empty and the box garden merely rough grass, so it’s left to the imagination to conjure up the intended image. (If this sounds slightly negative, I should mention that the palace itself is exceptionally well preserved and maintained).

Since most courtyards are paved, courtyard plantings often come in the form of potted plants. We did, however, see some examples in private homes and some restaurants of extravagantly planted courtyards. Lush green foliage plants dominated, with flowers added primarily for fragrance.

In terms of outdoor decoration, ceramic tiles are a highlight of Turkish aesthetics. One can marvel for hours at the craftsmanship and artistic quality of these tiles, which are used to cover almost any surface. In outdoor courtyards, they formed the perfect complement to the otherwise simple and understated spaces.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Chelsea Flower Show 2010

About a week ago today, I was in the early morning lineup to the one-and-only Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is a big deal around here, and having first attended last spring, this time around I knew that for the best viewing – sans enormous crowds – you must be there when the gates open. Any outsider seeing the early morning lineup could have easily confused the feisty old gardening ladies jostling for position for teenage girls waiting to see their latest pop idol. Security guards repeatedly warned us “not to surge” and “proceed slowly and calmly” once the gates opened.

Like most, the highlight of Chelsea for me is the large show gardens. Designing a Chelsea garden must be one of the most demanding artistic endeavors imaginable, not to mention a logistical nightmare. And of course it’s also a pricey undertaking - one exhibitor told us the average price tag of each large show garden is around 3.5 million pounds!

You can find all of the information about the show gardens (and more) on the Chelsea site, but here are some of my highlights from my 9 hour marathon visit.

M&G Garden by Roger Platts

A very traditional cottage garden with some of the most amazing planting I have ever seen. Given that cottage gardens have been done a lot, it's quite remarkable to still be able to wow an audience with one. If you were actually allowed into the garden, I could have spent hours sitting in this one.

Daily Telegraph Garden by Andy Sturgeon
Many people’s (and my) favourite garden at the show, which is an impressive feat considering the unbelievable quality of gardens this year. The inspired mix of Mediterranean and English made for an innovative design which set this garden apart (and earned it ‘Best in Show’). I loved the colour scheme, plant choices and pairings, and well-integrated modern design elements. They don't get much better than this.

Laurent-Perrier Garden by Tom Stuart Smith
I really, really liked this garden. Again, planting was stunning (it seems that this year's theme was rich, loose, naturalistic plantings, which was nice to see). The contrast with modern design elements and shaped boxwood made for a well balanced composition.

Kebony – Naturally Norway by Darren Saines
This garden got mixed reviews from our group of visitors, but I really liked it. The combination of bold, clean modern elements against naturalistic plantings created a powerful visual contrast. The focal point was a gnarled pine, taken from a rock face in a Norwegian quarry along with about 4 tones of rock to preserve its roots. I don't really agree with taking such plants from the wild, but I’m telling myself that maybe it was actually saved from impending destruction. I asked if they were planning to put it back afterwards, but they didn't seem too impressed with that idea. It was going to be planted in a garden instead - hopefully it will survive.

The Tourism Malaysia Garden, by David Cubero & James Wong
This is one of the first times I have seen a well designed tropical garden. Often ‘tropical’ just means a whole lot of random, large-leaved plants. In this garden, however, plants actually appeared to be carefully chosen - predominantly dark green foliage contrasted with lighter ferns and rich burgundy and brown foliage and bark. Set against white stone and dark wood hardscaping, the overall effect was great.

I could go on and on about Chelsea, but it's really something that has to be experienced first hand. It's worth the treat. Just make sure to get there early to avoid the crowds!